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Venezuela's loquacious leader has decided he can no longer cede the digital sphere his opponents.
CARACAS, Venezuela — As an opening salvo it was pretty innocuous. But Hugo Chavez has taken Twitter by storm, clocking up nearly 95,000 followers in the 36 hours since he sent his first message.
Just weeks after declaring that sites such as Twitter channel “currents of conspiracy,” Chavez launched his own account on the digital telegram site that allows users to post messages with a 140-character limit.
“Hey how’s it going? I appeared as I said I would: at midnight. I’m going to Brazil. And very happy to work for Venezuela. We shall be victorious!!” says the English translation of Chavez's first post. He's currently following five accounts, including Fidel Castro, two government ministers, his party and Correo del Orinoco, Venezuela's first newspaper which he resuscitated last year.
Chavez is latching onto a craze for social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook that has exploded onto the Venezuelan consciousness, fueled by a boom in internet connectivity and one of the highest penetrations of smart phone usage in the world.
Some 86 percent of internet users have a Facebook account, according to Tendencias Digitales, a local firm that tracks internet behavior. In 2008, Facebook grew by 1,200 percent, encouraged by the fact that more than a million Venezuelans own a Blackberry, giving it a 7 percent share of the marketplace, two and a half times higher than the Latin American average.
Twitter has just 4 percent of the market but Tendencias Digitales’ Carlos Jimenez said its influence is far greater because its information is often cited and recycled by journalists in the traditional media.
Indeed, one Venezuelan Twitter account, by the opposition TV channel Globovision, is regularly listed as one of the 20 most influential Twitter accounts in the world, competing with heavyweights such as The New York Times and CNN.
Globovision, which has more than 200,000 followers, is influential not only because of its popularity but also because it engages in conversations with its followers, said Jonny Bentwood, creator of TweetLevel at global PR firm Edelman.
“The way that certain accounts become more influential is when they actually engage in conversations,” said Bentwood, whose program uses an algorithm and raw data provided by Twitter to measure accounts’ influence.
For more than a decade Chavez, an ex-soldier, has waged a battle with his opponents for control of the media. Since coming to power he has closed down one of the country’s most popular TV channels and 34 radio stations that he said were not complying with broadcasting laws.
More recently he has taken the “media war” quite literally by sending out school children as battalions of “communicational guerrillas” to spread the government’s message on the streets.
The internet has remained largely out of Chavez’s sphere of influence — until now. Chavez has feared the open-ended nature of the web as it is something he cannot control, Jimenez said.
But as internet penetration has grown in Venezuela — it will have reached more than half of the population of 28 million by the presidential elections of 2012 — so has Chavez’s interest in it. In 2009, Venezuela had nearly 9 million users.
“It’s a government policy to get involved in these social networks because it’s going to be an arena where there will be a political debate and possibilities and opportunities to proselytize," Jimenez said. “They can’t abandon this space because otherwise they’ll be left on the outside.”
Chavez last month said the internet would have to be controlled after he learned a local website had allowed comments to be broadcast saying that one of his closest confidants, Diosdado Cabello, who runs the sate telecommunications agency, had been gunned down and killed.
Last year Cabello had aired the idea of running all of Venezuela’s internet lines through the state-run telephone company, a proposal that critics said would give the government control of cyberspace.
“The government sees this as occupying a territory — what’s behind this is military logic,” said Carlos Delgado, a professor specializing in digital communication at the Andres Bello Catholic University.
But that, said Delgado, may not be as easy as the government thinks given that the internet, with its various forms of participation, encourages a multiplicity of viewpoints and opinions.
Many believe the loquacious president, who is known for his rambling speeches that can last up to nine hours, would struggle to work within the restrictions of Twitter.
Others also believe that Chavez, who has become increasingly cocooned within a bubble of yes-men ministers, rented crowds and sycophantic media, might struggle to operate within a medium that thrives best on creating conversations.
“It will be interesting to see with Hugo Chavez’s account how much he engages with people, how much he actually talks to people or whether he just broadcasts,” said Bentwood.
Chavez said Wednesday he welcomed the many messages he had received from all over the world, including several insults, and that he believed the social networks are “a weapon that also needs to be used by the revolution.” Twittercounter.com predicts Chavez will pass 1 million followers within 36 days.
Jimenez said Chavez's presence on Twitter would likely increase the site's popularity in Venezuela and encourage his followers to join social networking sites. "There's going to be a greater balance than what we see at the moment on Twitter which is mainly opposition."
In the meantime Chavez appeared to be enjoying the popularity of his posts and said he would be using Twitter to communicate with some old friends.
“I’m going to send one to Fidel. I’ll be writing to you soon, Fidel,” he said while clutching a Blackberry phone.